Are there any ideas as to what the English landscape was like before the arrival of the Angles?

Are there any ideas as to what the English landscape was like before the arrival of the Angles?

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I am not sure if this question is within the guidelines (it may be), but I am curious as to this: In North America, for instance, it is often said it was heavily forested and that a squirrel could get from one side unto the other without touching the ground.

The Angles, along with the Saxons and the Jutes, probably started arriving in Britain around the middle of the 5th century, some 50 years after Rome abandoned its northern-most province. They would have mostly seen a landscape with many features of the late Roman period (described below) in a state of decay, alongside Celtic Iron Age dwellings.

By the time the Romans arrived in Britain, much of England was already deforested though there were significant regional differences (this link is a download), ranging from around 15% forested area in central England and East Anglia to around 40% in upland northern England (largely modern-day Cumbria). Farming was both arable and pastoral with most people living in Iron Age-style roundhouses, which were made of timber and thatch, dotted across the landscape of much of England.

Source: Chris Gunns [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The landscape the Romans found was one of cultivated fields and pastures, scattered farmsteads and settlements, and surviving islands of managed woodland.

The Romans eventually criss-crossed this landscape with roads, beside which many villages and towns developed. These often had rectangular houses and shops fronting onto the road.

The remains of a Roman villa at North Leigh, Oxfordshire. Early Anglo-Saxons would probably have seen more than this as, over the centuries, people removed stones to construct churches, walls and houses. (Image is Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Probably no more than 10% of a population estimated to be between 2 to 3.5 million would have been 'agriculturally non-productive' during the late Roman period. This would have declined as

Towns and villas were falling into ruin within a generation [of the Roman departure]. It can be argued that the Anglo-Saxons, who arrived in numbers some decades later, came into a political and cultural vacuum - although many of the people were apparently still there, farming the landscape, albeit probably in smaller numbers.

Source: The British Museum, 'Roman Britain'(pdf)

It is also believed that the population declined during the centuries following the Roman departure, perhaps by as much as half. Further,

With the disappearance of the Roman system the population of Britain would have reverted totally to a subsistence agriculture mode. We may thus expect for the area that is now England to find a settlement pattern made up of farmsteads for nucleated or extended families practising agricultural strategies designed to yield little in the way of surplus above that necessary to perpetuate the crops and herds.

Source: A.S.Esmonde Cleary, 'The Ending of Roman Britain'


Squatter occupation… seems to have continued in a number of towns and it is a measure of the skill of Roman planners and engineers that only two major Roman urban sites are unoccupied today, Silchester and Wroxeter…

Source: Michael Reed, 'The Landscape of Britain'

Source: Lotroo / R. Botek; Изработено от Потребител:Lotroo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Roman road network,on the other hand, would have been evident:

One important survival was the road network, which formed the skeleton of communications in Britain until the 18th century.

Source: The British Museum, 'Roman Britain'(pdf)

When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes started to settle, the generally accepted view is

the taking-over by the Anglo-Saxons of a Romano-British site or social feature and its adaptation the better to respond to Anglo-Saxon priorities.

Source: A.S.Esmonde Cleary

In practice, this meant that many buildings were either (1) torn down so the materials could be used elsewhere, (2) put to some other use or (3) simply abandoned.

Other sources

P. H. Sawyer, 'From Roman Britain to Norman England' (2nd edition, 1998)

Simon T. Loseby, 'Power and Towns in Late Roman Britain and Early Anglo-Saxon England' (pdf)

The Development Of The British English Language

The world had more than 1 billion people learning English in 2000, according to the British Council. There is little doubt that today the tongue can be considered the international language of choice, a requisite for business, culture and political exchanges across the globe. So where did it originate from? We investigate the extraordinary history and evolution of one of the world’s most widely-spoken languages.

Mapped: Africa before and after European colonialism

In 1884, a group of European leaders and diplomats met in Berlin to carve up Africa in service of their imperial interests. While there had been colonies in parts of coastal Africa for centuries, new advances in weapon technology, trains, and a liquid defense against malaria meant that European powers could now invade the interior. Great Britain was entering the height of its colonial power, while the French 3rd Republic and Otto von Bismarck of Germany were each constructing their own new empires. What followed the Berlin Conference is known as the “Scramble for Africa.”

What is often left out of Western history books are the African kingdoms, caliphates, sultanates, and empires that had, in some cases, existed for centuries. Most notable among them is the Mali Empire, which may have produced the richest man in history and covered an area about the size of western Europe. Others include the Ethiopian Empire, which, after crushing the Italian invaders in the Battle of Adwa, was the only African state to defeat a European colonial power. Save a ten-year span during World War 2, Ethiopia was governed by the Abyssinian imperial dynasty from 1270 until 1974, a period two times longer than the British Empire.

The maps below present Africa just before the Berlin Conference and the way it looked after colonization. The contrast is striking, but Ethiopia stands out as a defiant thorn in the side of European imperialism.

Later Developments

By the 1970s photomontage was taken up by a number of prominent individuals. Artists, including Martha Rosler, Peter Kennard, Linder Sterling, and Barbara Kruger created composite works that gathered under the rubric of social protest and identity politics. Moving into the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century, new photographic and digital technologies allowed for further innovations. These developments are evident in the conceptual digital photomontages of Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall. David Hockney, meanwhile, developed photomontages out of Polaroid prints, calling them "joiners", while John Stezaker combined postcards with film stills.

The blended and juxtapositional constituents of photomontage have become time-honoured and omnipresent in the digital age. Many examples of digital photomontage are now designed to celebrate the imagination of the artist. The Spaniard Antonio Mora, for instance, uses images found on blogs and other online sources to create a "pure art" concerned with nothing more than visual effects and aesthetics. More recently, photomontage has become an essential element of multimedia installation, as seen for instance in Kruger's Belief + Doubt (2012) and Lorna Simpson's Unanswerable (2018).

Impressionism and Modern Life

Impressionism created a new way of seeing the world. It was a way of observing the city, the suburbs, and the countryside as mirrors of the modernization that each of these artists perceived and wanted to record from their point of view. Modernity, as they knew it, became their subject matter. Mythology, biblical scenes and historical events that had dominated the revered "history" painting of their era were replaced by subjects of contemporary life, such as cafes and street life in Paris, suburban and rural leisure life outside of Paris, dancers and singers and workmen.

The Impressionists attempted to capture the quickly shifting light of natural daylight by painting outdoors ("en plein air"). They mixed their colors on the canvas rather than their palettes and painted rapidly in wet-on-wet complementary colors made from new synthetic pigments. To achieve the look they wanted, they invented the technique of "broken colors," leaving gaps in the top layers to reveal colors below, and abandoning the films and glazes of the older masters for a thick impasto of pure, intense color.

In a sense, the spectacle of the street, cabaret or seaside resort became "history" painting for these stalwart Independents (who also called themselves the Intransigents—the stubborn ones).

What DNA evidence shows

For decades, archaeologists and geneticists have sought to identify Anglo-Saxons in England. An early attempt in 2002 relied on modern DNA with a study of the male Y chromosome suggesting there had been a 95% population replacement of Britons by the Anglo-Saxons, comprised of different people from Northern Europe. But another study, based on mitochondrial DNA which is inherited from the mother, found no evidence of significant post-Roman migration into England. A third paper suggested that the genetic contribution of the Anglo-Saxons in south-eastern England was under 50%.

The discrepancies between the findings are because these three papers used modern DNA and worked backwards. Work my colleagues and I have undertaken looked at the question from the other direction – by working with ancient DNA.

The results from our recent study were published in Nature Communications and included evidence from an Anglo-Saxon site I excavated in Oakington, Cambridgeshire. In total ten skeletons were investigated. These included seven early medieval graves dating to between the fifth and eighth century – four from Oakington and three from Hinxton – and three earlier Iron Age graves from Cambridgeshire, dating to between the second century BC and the first century AD, to provide the genome of the antecedent inhabitants of Briton.

We used a novel method called “rarecoal” to look at ancestry based on the sharing of rare alleles, which are the building blocks of genes. Our research concluded that migrants during what’s now thought of as the Anglo-Saxon period were most closely related to the modern Dutch and Danish – and that the modern East English population derived 38% of its ancestry from these incomers. The rest of Britain, including today’s Scottish and Welsh, share 30% of their DNA with these migrants.

Excavating at Oakington. Duncan Sayer , Author provided

The analysis of DNA of four individuals from the Oakington Anglo-Saxon cemetery identified that one of them was a match with the Iron Age genome, two were closest to modern Dutch genomes, and one was a hybrid of the two. Each of these burials was culturally Anglo-Saxon because they were buried in the same way, in the same cemetery. In fact, the richest assemblage of Anglo-Saxon artefacts came from the individual with the match for Iron Age genetic ancestry, and so was not a migrant at all.

It shows that these ancient people did not distinguish biological heritage from cultural association. In other words, someone who lived and died in the fifth or sixth century Anglo-Saxon village of Oakington could have been biologically related to an earlier inhabitant of England, a recent migrant from continental Europe or a descendent of either or both – they were all treated the same in death.

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IKEA: hmm. Well, if in two thousand years time people are able to say that the emergence of IKEA stores in England coincided with the beginning of a two-hundred year period at the end of which the entire population of lowland Britain was speaking Swedish, with English speakers pushed into the western highlands, they might actually have a point. If they could further show that there was almost no linguistic interchange of vocabulary between the two groups, that might seem to reinforce it. And if those Swedish speakers had left a literary legacy that described their migration from Scandinavia and their struggles to establish kingdoms in Britain, that would pretty much clinch it. But if in two thousand years time everyone was still speaking English, they’d probably conclude that the English had simply developed a taste for Swedish furniture, i.e. they’d probably have enough sense to interpret the evidence correctly.

What makes me more than a little suspicious of all variants of the language-adoption-by-acculturation thesis is the absence of a single historically confirmed example (i.e. one that took place in a period with adequate historical records to judge). In every other case, language replacement happens only in two situations: 1) Where an incoming group establishes a language community themselves by arriving in sufficient numbers that they eventually overwhelm the previous language groups (i.e. either push them away, kill them deliberately, or introduce environmental factors that cause their deaths) some of the rump original population end up speaking the new language, but it’s essentially a population replacement. Examples: the English in New England, the British in Australia and New Zealand, the French in New France. 2) Where an incoming group is smaller in number but decisively more powerful, and is able to impose a framework of administration and control that allows them to impose their language, whether through an education system or through language laws that prohibit use of the native language. Examples: the English at various times in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Note that even in the most extreme and long-lasting example of mode 2, that of Ireland, replacement was not fully achieved even after 750 years of trying. And note also that where the imbalance of numbers between the incomers and natives is sufficiently great, the incomers don’t even try, e.g. the Romans in Britain, the Normans in England, the British in India and West Africa etc. Instead, the incomers’ language simply becomes a lingua franca that sits alongside the original language without ever replacing it because, while there is vocabulary interchange, the rulers’ language is never adopted as a native language. Only a vanishingly tiny proportion of the hundreds of millions of speakers of English today in India, for instance, could be said to be speaking it as a native language. For the rest, it is not what their parents spoke to them at home as a child, and it’s not what they speak at home to their children.

In Britain in the 5th-7th centuries the paucity of historical sources doesn’t allow us to be so clear, but what’s very obvious is that the emergent English kingdoms had nothing like the kind of organizational infrastructure in that period to impose their language on a native population through an education system or the workings of a government administration — even to state the condition is to realize how far-fetched it is. Yet nothing short of that would have achieved the job. So what we’re left with is something that is clearly much swifter and more fundamental — some variant of mode 1.

The various attempts that have been made, in the face of this conclusion, to imagine that most of lowland Britain was *already* speaking some form of Germanic language, long before any historical reference to such a migration, is clearly a post-hoc rationalization in a desperate attempt to preserve a theory that, in any other circumstances, would be considered wildly fanciful.

The fringe claims in this book are simply out of step with the now enormous evidence, especially from archaeogenetics, that there was a significant migration in the 5th – 8th centuries of Germanic-speaking migrants from the continent into eastern and southern Britain. The migrants mixed with the larger native Celtic Briton population, but still left a notable genetic and cultural impact. Ancient DNA in studies from 2016 clearly show a marked genetic change between Iron Age and Roman period Celtic Briton remains and remains from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Beyond the overwhelming genetic evidence, the author surprisingly ignores a great deal of linguistic and historical evidence. Strangely, there is a claim made here that the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes spoke “many different languages and dialects”. This is at best an exaggeration, or at worst completely false. All these four major tribal groups are known to have been, without a doubt, very closely related linguistically and culturally. In fact, their language was likely a common proto-language with only minor dialect variation. Old English would only diverge from the Old Frisian and Old Saxon on the continent in subsequent centuries. By the time of the Vikings in the 9th century, Old English was even to a significant degree still mutually intelligible with Old Norse. Considering Anglo-Saxon homelands (Saxony, Angeln, Jutland, Frisia) were geographically adjacent to one another, it is absurd to claim that they would have spoken highly divergent languages or dialects or have been culturally that different from one another. Given that Bede was writing in the 8th century about the affairs of the “old Saxons” on the continent, there clearly was still contact, mutual comprehension and knowledge about their ancestral homeland. For that to be the case, Bede and other Saxons and England must have had descended from a migration event still within fairly recent memory among such writers. But more importantly, the Saxons in England could still communicate with the Saxons on the continent thus it is unlikely that dialects in England were that different either. Clearly, given the dominance of the Angles and Saxons among the migrants, and the closeness of all the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, Anglo-Saxon is an appropriate ethnic identified for the union and interaction of Anglian and Saxon polities Most importantly, the closest living languages to English to this day are the Frisian languages and Low Saxon/Low German. The relation is so close that it had to occur during the Germanic migrations period, when the West Germanic languages are known to have begun substantially diverging. If there wee West Germanic speakers in Britain centuries earlier, the linguistic divergence between Old English and Old Frisian would have been much greater, and likewise between the modern languages. This whole claim of English arriving from some large mixture of Celtic, Latin and Germanic languages in England at the time is completely unsupported. There is barely any Celtic influence on Old English or modern English. Latin influence on old English was also very minor. The major changes to English came centuries later after the arrival of Anglo-Saxon, and mostly from Old Norse, Old Norman (Norman French) and Ecclesiastical Latin. Linguists who refer to English as a contact language are referring to Middle and Modern English, NOT Old English. Old English was extremely close, almost indistinguishable, from Old Frisian and Old Saxon. The fact Old English was so little influenced by Celtic and Latin, and the fact that the Germanic migrants did not adapt vulgar Latin, like was the case with all Germanic elites in other parts of western Europe where they settled, is a major piece of evidence for a substantial migration and dominance of new Germanic migrants and a new political elite.

I am also surprised at the ignorance of the book, and the article, of the overwhelming evidence for major and regular conflict between Celtic Briton polities and all of the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon polities throughout the 5th – 9th centuries. All of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which bordered British Celtic territory – Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria – are recorded with having numerous and constant battles in the time period with Celtic Britons from Dumnonia in the southwest all the way up to Rheged in southern Scotland. Celtic Britons, Gaels and Picts also frequently allied with one another against Anglian Northumbria. Such a threat from a singular kingdom seems strange, and clearly there was a marked changes from Celtic speaking polities to unify against a common, non-Celtic enemy. There was also construction of massive earthworks, by both Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons, as defensive barriers against one another – Offa’s Dyke, the Broadclough Dykes and the Wansdyke.

And where is the acknowledgement of the Celtic Briton refugees created by the conquests of Celtc Britons by both Wessex and Mercia? There were waves of Celtic Britons who fled to Brittany, and as far as Galicia in Spain (the colony of ‘Britonia’), during the 5th – 8th centuries and established new colonies there, bringing their British Celtic language (modern Breton) with them.

Another area ignored by this book is the change in religion. Christianity had taken root in large degree among the Celtic Britons by the end of the Roman period. And there was clearly a subsequent change in this, with Germanic paganism becoming common in eastern and southern Britain right at the time of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. The centre for Christianity at the time was not in eastern England, but in Celtic strongholds like Wales, Rheged (Cumbria) – where St. Patrick was from – and the southwest. How could there have been a sudden shift to Germanic paganism in the more Romanized parts of eastern Britain if there was not an arrival of Germanic pagan migrants?

Finally, the claim that St Germanus arrived in a Britain that was “stable and peaceful” is not supported by the accounts of his visit to Britain I do not know why the author omitted this, but Germanus was recorded to have led a group of native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at a mountainous site near a river. And even Germanus largely visited areas in the western parts of Britain, the Celtic strongholds, and not the areas in the east at the time where Angles and Saxons had mostly settled.

I really am bewildered by the contents of this book, and article, by the inaccurate claims and outright ignorance of the massive current evidence, especially genetics and linguistics, for Germanic migrants in line with the Anglo-Saxon period between the 5th – 8th centuries.

1. The Colonists were Absorbed into Local Indian Populations or Captured as Slaves

The most popular theory is that the colonists left Roanoke and that they sought shelter with other Indian tribes. There were many documented sightings of Europeans and their influence in the years following the disappearance of the settlers, and the theory goes that these Europeans could have been the missing settlers or their descendants. The Zuniga map, drawn by a Jamestown settler named Francis Nelson in 1607, documents four men that came from Roanoke living among the Iroquois tribe. In the early 1600s to the middle 1700s, European colonists claimed to have met gray-eyed Indians who claimed to have been descended from white settlers.

In 1696, French Huguenots left records of meeting blond-haired, blue-eyed Indians soon after their arrival along the Tar River. In 1709, John Lawson, in his book A New Voyage to Carolina, records Croatoans living on Croatoan Island who claimed that they used to live on Roanoke Island and they claimed to have white ancestors. William Strachey also claimed to have seen Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen Indians living in two-story stone houses that the English showed them how to build.

The main theory is that the settlers of Roanoke moved to Croatoan Island and joined with the Native Americans living there. Croatoan Island is located just south of Roanoke Island and was the home of the Croatoan Indians. The settlers had good relations with them, so we can assume that the settlers were absorbed into the tribe. This theory has never been substantiated, but with the clues left at Roanoke, plus the good relations that were standing between the settlers and the Indians at the time of their disappearance, it is all we have to go on.

There is another theory that the colonists joined with the Croatoans and they relocated inland along the Alligator River, slightly inland from Roanoke Island. An archaeological site of settlements, including burial grounds, has been discovered there. The coffins at the burial grounds have Christian markings on them, but there was no previous record of any settlement or the grave site in this location. There is no definitive evidence that this site belonged to the missing Roanoke settlers, though.

While the prevailing theory is that the people of Roanoke merged with local Indian populations, it is just as possible that it wasn&rsquot that happy an ending. Considering that the people were never heard from again, it is just as likely that they encountered hostile Native American tribes. They could have been taken as slaves. William Strachey, the secretary of Jamestown, VA, claimed in 1612, that he saw Europeans (four men, two boys, and one girl) living with the Eno tribe as slaves and that they were forced to beat copper. There is no evidence that these Europeans were descendants of the Roanoke settlers.

With the development of technology, solving the mystery of what happened at Roanoke is more possible now than ever before with DNA testing. We can now test the Native American peoples who claim to be descended from the Roanoke settlers to see if it is in fact true. In 2007, the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded by Roberta Estes, using her private DNA testing company to see if the missing colonists did, in fact, merge with local Native American populations, using historical records, migration patterns, and oral histories. The project offers DNA tests to people who think they might be descended from the people of Roanoke, using Y-chromosomes, autosomal DNA, and mitochondrial DNA to make the determination. So far, DNA testing of Native Americans has not been able to identify any Roanoke descendants.

Castles of the Conqueror

In 1066, as everybody knows, the Normans invaded England. That most engaging of all medieval sources, the Bayeux Tapestry, shows them landing their horses at Pevensey in Sussex and racing to occupy nearby Hastings, from where they would shortly set out to fight the most famous battle in English history.

Before that, they paused to have an elaborate sit-down meal – barbecued chicken is on the menu – and attend to their own protection. “This man,” says the caption of an important-looking Norman holding a pennant, “orders a castle to be dug at Hastings,” and to his right we see a group of men, armed with picks and shovels, setting to work.

The Normans’ decision to erect a castle at the very moment of their arrival might not strike us as particularly remarkable. After all, medieval warfare revolved around the building and besieging of fortresses, and the English landscape of today is liberally studded with their remains. But at the time of the invasion in late September 1066, the Normans’ action was startlingly novel: prior to that point, castles had been virtually unknown in England.

The exceptions comprised a handful constructed a few years earlier by the French friends of King Edward the Confessor. “The foreigners had built a castle in Herefordshire,” says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1051, “and had inflicted every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts”.

The fact that the chronicler was reporting a new phenomenon is conveyed not only by his palpable outrage at the Frenchmen’s behaviour, but also by his need to borrow their word for the offending object: this is the first recorded use of ‘castle’ in English.

The Conquest that followed 15 years later ensured it would not be the last, because the castle was the primary instrument by which the Normans stamped their authority on England. From having almost no castles in the period before 1066, the country was quickly crowded with them. According to one conservative modern estimate, based on the number of surviving earthworks, at least 500, and possibly closer to 1,000, had been constructed by the end of the 11th century – barely two generations since the Normans’ initial landing.

Of course, England had not been without defences before 1066. The pre-Conquest landscape was studded with, among other things, Iron Age hillforts, Roman legionary forts, and the fortified towns built by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, known as boroughs or burhs. But all of these structures differed from what followed in that they were large enclosures designed to protect sizeable communities including, in some cases, non-military personnel. Castles, by contrast, were comparatively small affairs, designed to be defended by a limited number of fighting men. They had originated in France around the turn of the first millennium as a result of the collapse of royal and provincial authority, when power ultimately devolved to those who had the means to build their own private fortifications and fill them with mounted warriors.

As well as being smaller in area, castles were also taller. Some of the earliest French examples were great stone towers, such as the soaring donjon at Loches on the river Loire, built by the buccaneering Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou, around AD 1000, and still impressive 1,000 years later.

But the crucial thing about castles was that they could be created without the need for such colossal investment. It was quite possible to obtain the same advantage of height quickly and on a fraction of the budget by throwing up a great mound of earth and topping it with a tower of wood. As every schoolchild knows, such mounds were known from the first as ‘mottes’.

The point about size and speed is reinforced by the Normans’ behaviour in England immediately after their arrival. At Pevensey they created a castle by adapting a Roman fort, and at Hastings by customising an Iron Age hillfort, in each case hiving off a smaller section of the much larger original.

After their victory at Hastings, as they set about crushing the remaining English resistance, the Normans continued to follow this method of construction. They added new fortifications to the ancient defences at Dover, and almost certainly created the castle at Wallingford by destroying a corner of the Anglo-Saxon borough.

When, late in 1066, the citizens of London at last submitted to William the Conqueror, his first thought was to plant a castle in the south-eastern angle of the city – the site that would soon become home to the Tower.

Rising in revolt

In the years that followed, the castle-building campaign intensified. The Normans, wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1067, “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to worse”.

Part of the reason for this intensification was the repeated attempts by the English to throw off the rule of their conquerors. The south-west of England rose in revolt at the start of 1068, apparently led by the surviving remnants of the Godwin family, while in the summer of the same year there were similar risings in the Midlands and northern England.

William crushed them all, marching in with his army and planting castles in major towns and cities. Exeter, Nottingham, Warwick, York, Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon all received new royal fortresses at this time, and further examples were added in the years that followed: Chester and Stafford in 1069–70, Ely in 1071 and Durham in 1072.

The northernmost outpost of Norman power was established in 1080 by the Conqueror’s son Robert, who planted a “new castle” upon the river Tyne, while William himself marked the western limit of his authority during an expedition to Wales the following year, founding a new fortress in an old Roman fort called Cardiff.

The foundation of castles, however, was far from being an exclusively royal affair. William may have raised armies to quell major rebellions, but for the rest of the time he relied on other Normans to keep order in his new kingdom.

In the two decades after 1066 the king rewarded his closest followers with extensive grants of land in England, and the first act of any sensible incoming lord was invariably to construct a castle. In some instances it appears that these were planted on top of existing English seigneurial residences, to emphasise a continuity of lordship.

But in most cases such continuity was lacking because the process of conquest had caused the country’s existing tenurial map to be torn up. Sussex, for example, was sliced up into half-a-dozen new lordships, known locally as rapes, which paid no heed to earlier patterns of ownership. New lordships required new castles, and the rapes were named in each case after the fortresses that sprung up at Chichester, Hastings, Bramber, Arundel, Lewes and Pevensey.

The reorganisation of Sussex into continental-style, castle-centred lordships seems to have been a decision determined by cold military logic. The county had been the Normans’ beachhead, and also the former Godwin heartland. The rapes run north-south, and their castles are all located near the coast, as if to keep the route between London and Normandy secure.

In recent decades, however, the scholarly trend has been to emphasise that castles had other roles beyond the military. The fact that they were often sited to command road and river routes, for example, meant that their owners were also well placed to control trade, and could both protect and exploit mercantile traffic. We are reminded, too, that part of the reason for building a castle could be symbolic. A great fortress, towering above everything else for miles around, provided a constant physical reminder of its owner’s power – a permanent assertion of his right to rule.

During the Conqueror’s reign, this was most obviously true in the case of the three great stone towers the king himself is known to have created at Chepstow, Colchester and (most famously) London. In each case these giant buildings, the like of which England had not seen since the time of the Romans, have strong Roman resonances and were partially constructed using the stone from nearby Roman ruins not for nothing did 20th-century scholars christen the style ‘Romanesque’.

Indeed, in the case of Colchester it is difficult to suggest a reason for the construction of so massive a building – beyond a desire to be associated with the town’s imperial past. There are no reports of rebellions or military action in Essex during William’s reign, but the great tower he created in Colchester was erected on the ruins of the town’s Roman temple. The Conqueror’s sycophantic biographer, William of Poitiers, draws frequent comparisons between his royal master and Julius Caesar. To judge from buildings such as Chepstow, Colchester and the Tower of London, it was a comparison that the king himself was keen to cultivate.

At the same time, we need to guard against hyper-correction. In recent years, it seems to me, the revisionist arguments about Norman castles have been pushed too far, to the extent that some historians now come close to arguing that they had almost no military function at all.

Take, for example, the castle that William the Conqueror caused to be built at Exeter in 1068. Its original gatehouse still survives, and has been judged defensively weak because it was originally entered at ground level. This may be so, but it takes a considerable leap to conclude from this, as one historian has done, that the whole castle was “militarily ineffectual”.

Much of the site has now vanished, but it occupied an area of around 185 metres by 185 metres (600 by 600 feet) Domesday Book suggests that 48 houses were destroyed in order to make room for it. It was built on the highest point in the town, and was separated by a deep ditch and rampart.

Exeter had fallen to William in 1068 after a bitter three-week siege that saw heavy casualties on both sides – and during which, if we believe the later chronicler William of Malmesbury, one of the English defenders signalled his defiance by dropping his trousers and farting in the king’s general direction. It beggars belief to suppose that the Conqueror, having taken the city at such cost, would have commissioned a building that had no military capability, and was concerned only with the projection of what has been called ‘peaceable power’.

The notion that castles had little military purpose also requires us to ignore the testimony of contemporary chroniclers. William of Poitiers repeatedly describes the castles his master besieged on the continent before 1066 using terms such as “very strong” or “virtually impregnable”. Such descriptions are borne out by the fact that it took the duke months, and in some cases years, to take them.

Yet some scholars are curiously reluctant to allow that castles built after the Conquest served a similar military purpose. The Conqueror’s great stone tower at Chepstow, for instance, has been plausibly reinterpreted in recent years as an audience chamber where the king or his representatives could receive and overawe the native rulers of Wales.

But the fact is that Chepstow Castle was still a formidable building, situated high on a cliff above the river Wye, and defended at each end by ditches cut deep into the rock. True, it does not bristle with arrowloops, turrets and machicolations – but then no castles did in that period, because the technology of attack was primitive in comparison with what came later. Without the great stone-throwing machines known as trebuchets, there was not much an enemy at the gates could do, beyond mounting a blockade and trying to starve a garrison into submission.

In these circumstances, a well-situated and well-stocked castle could be militarily decisive. In 1069 the people of Northumbria overran Durham, massacring its Norman garrison, which tried and failed to hold out in the hall of the local bishop. But when the Northumbrians attempted to take the town again in 1080 they failed, because they were unable to take its new castle.

Subduing the English

One of the remarkable things about the Norman conquest was how quickly the rift between the English and the Normans was healed. Within a generation or two, it is possible to point to castles that did owe more to ideas of peaceful living than military deterrence. But in the years immediately after 1066, filled as they were with bloody rebellion and even bloodier repression – when a few thousand Normans lived among a population of two million English in the daily fear of violent death – in these circumstances castles have to be regarded first and foremost as military installations, introduced to subdue an unwilling population.

Unfashionable though it may be among castle scholars, there is every reason to listen to the testimony of the half-English, half-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis, born in Shropshire within a decade of 1066, who attributed the success of the Conquest to one factor above all others.

“The fortifications that the Normans called castles,” he explains, “were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English – in spite of their courage and love of fighting – could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies.”

William’s castles 1066–87

From the moment his army landed on English soil, the Conqueror embarked on a remarkable programme of castle-building…


Established by the Conqueror’s friend William fitz Osbern soon after 1066, Chepstow was acquired by the king in 1075, after which construction is reckoned to have started on its Great Tower.


William built his first castle in England here, the point of the Normans’ disembarkation, to protect his army while they prepared to engage Harold Godwinson.


After his victory at Hastings, William reportedly spent eight days at Dover, an Iron Age hillfort, “adding the fortifications it lacked”. Afterwards it was entrusted to his half-brother Odo of Bayeux.


This was established shortly before Christmas 1066, “as a defence against the inconstancy of the numerous and hostile inhabitants” (wrote William of Poitiers). Work on the White Tower started in the 1070s and continued until the early 12th century.

Old Sarum

Planted in the middle of an Iron Age hillfort, Old Sarum was probably begun before 1070, when the Conqueror went there to dismiss his army after the Harrying of the North.


This most famous of English castles was created a short distance from an existing royal hunting lodge, probably before the council held at Windsor in 1070.


On his return from Scotland in 1072, William stopped to plant a castle in Durham where, three years earlier, his troops had been massacred by the Northumbrians.

William built not one but two castles in York: the first (Clifford’s Tower) was constructed in the summer of 1068, the second (Baile Hill) early the following year.


Norwich was begun before 1075 that year Ralph Guader, the rebellious earl of East Anglia, was besieged here for three months.


A gigantic building, with close affinities to the Tower of London, Colchester illustrates William’s desire to be compared to the Romans before him.

Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster specialising in the Middle Ages. He is the author of The Norman Conquest (Hutchinson, 2012).

To listen to our podcast interview with Marc on the story and legacy of the Norman Conquest, click here.